Thursday, October 13, 2011

129. Russia: proposed amendments to the Religion Law

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 129 | Wed 12 Oct 2011


By Anneta Vyssotskaia
-- a religious liberty advocate with a particular concern for and involvement in Russia and the
former USSR.

On Thursday 6 October the Russian Ministry of Justice made known to the public the proposed new amendments to the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations (1997) and allowed its Russian citizens to discuss them only until Monday 10 October. If accepted, the proposed amendments will restrict religious freedom in the country significantly.

The most restrictive effect of the amendments will be on unregistered religious groups which currently have the freedom to meet for worship and provide religious instruction to their followers. At present such groups comprise 20-30 percent of religious congregations in Russia. The amended version of the law, after removing their present right to exist and be involved in religious activities, will require them to apply for registration. At the same time the amendments also introduce a new article in the law setting up State religious expertise and providing more grounds for it to refuse registration.

Another restriction affects the rights of the registered local religious organisations that do not provide documentary proof of being a member of a large centralised religious organisation. Lev Levinson, an expert with the Institute of Human Rights, says they will not be permitted to have their own educational institutions or Sunday schools, or to create foreign entities. They will not be allowed to perform religious ceremonies in hospitals, prisons or orphanages, nor to print and distribute religious literature and mass-media for ten years. They will not be able to invite overseas visitors for professional ministry. All these activities would be restricted to organisations like Russian Orthodox Church parishes that are part of a centralised body. In Levinson's opinion it would prevent any alternative religious movement while spiritual and religious development is prohibited. However, it would benefit large church structures by protecting them from groups splitting off.

The proposed amendments force independent congregations to become part of centralised church unions.

Active State Advisor of the Russian Federation, Class I, and religious rights expert Dr Andrey Sebentsov says: 'The purpose of the proposed law is to create new hindrances for the activities of associations of the "non-traditional" religions. The exclusion of religious groups from the [religious] law will in fact create a situation that prohibits religious activities without registration, and all the other proposals contradict the spirit of the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights to such an extent that it is just amazing how we [i.e. Ministry of Justice] can manage to create precedents that aggravate the problems under the pretense of solving them.'

The Russian Minister of Justice, Alexander Konovalov, studied theology in Svyato-Tikonovskii Orthodox University and is a committed supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. Since he became Minister of Justice, his Ministry has made several attempts to introduce amendments to the Law on Religion intended to regulate strictly the activities of the religious organisations and groups. In 2009 the Ministry of Justice proposed a separate law to regulate missionary activities but it was rejected by all religious organisations.

Dr Roman Lunkin and Dr Inna Zagrebina from the Guild of Experts on Religion and Law posted an appeal to all Christians in Russia on the Guild's website. In it they call the proposed amendments the first serious attempt of the judicial authorities to change radically the existing Religion Law in Russia. They provide a detailed analysis of the proposed amendments. Home meetings of unregistered religious groups and especially missionary activities, as well as religious education of believers without registration, will be considered illegal. They will be punishable by fines and prosecution. All religious organisations will have to apply for registration through a filter of religious expertise conducted by Expert Council for Conducting State Religious Expertise under the Russian Ministry of Justice. This is led by a Russian Orthodox Church expert, Alexander Dvorkin, who is an active opponent of minority religious groups and specially targets Protestant churches. Believers, religious organisations and literature will be checked with double vigour for extremism. A discriminatory ten-year period will be applied to groups not belonging to large centralised organisations.

Lunkin and Zagrebina say: 'The prosecution of any unregistered religious activity, an increase of the opportunity for abused discretion through expertise and checking for extremism place Russia among the countries violating religious freedom and their own Constitutions and opposing the international norms and standards in the area of freedom of religion and beliefs.'

[Sources include , , http://www. , , ]


* the Russian Government, the Ministry of Justice and its minister, Alexander Konovalov, to respect and protect people's constitutional rights regardless of their religion.

* God's protection for all his people in large and small, registered and unregistered churches, and for God's wisdom, guidance and unity for church leaders.

* wisdom and protection of the religious and human rights experts in Russia, for unity between them and practical assistance to the churches at this difficult time.

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 15:16b, NIV)



The Russian Ministry of Justice allowed its citizens to discuss proposed amendments to the religious law only from Thursday 6 October to Monday 10 October. If adopted, they will restrict religious freedom in the country significantly. The amended religious law would make it illegal for unregistered religious groups to meet for worship or instruction, or be involved in any other religious activities, including hospital and prison chaplaincies. Their literature and other material would be banned. To be registered, small groups of churches and independent congregations would have to be part of large centralised organisations, effectively impossible. The amendments are obviously designed to serve the interests of large, traditional churches. Please pray for religious freedom and God's protection and blessing on all believers in churches large and small, registered and unregistered.